At Chapman University I teach an undergraduate course called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist. One of the course requirements is that each student must do an 18-minute TED-style talk. It’s a good exercise in learning to give public talks, as well as organize your thoughts in a manner conducive to both critical thinking and clear communication. The first student TED talk was by Taryn Honeysett on something called “The Mandela Effect,” of which I was unfamiliar. The name comes from the mistaken belief that the great statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) died while in prison in the 1980s, and it is characterized by a group of people who all misremember something in a similar manner.
The effect gained a cultural toehold in an Internet forum discussion over the proper spelling of a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstain Bears, when a number of people insisted the correct spelling was Berenstein. (The series began in 1962, with the first book edited and published by Dr. Seuss—aka Ted Seuss Geisel.) Other examples of The Mandela Effect involve the number of states in the United States (50 or 52, with a sizable number of people believing it is 52, probably mixing states in the U.S. with cards in a deck), the correct spelling of the word definitely (or definitly), and people’s recall of what Darth Vader said in Star Wars: “Luke, I’m your father” or “No, I’m your father” (it’s the latter, although I too remember it by the more effecting version that addresses the subject).
So what? So plenty, say some who believe in the “Many-Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics (first proffered by Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt) that allows for parallel universes. In this interpretation, whenever a quantum event occurs the universe splits into parallel universes and timelines. These little glitches, believers in The Mandela Effect say, are signs of other universes and timelines coming into contact with ours. According to a “paranormal consultant” named Fiona Broome, for example, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, each event in each one of which is on its own timeline. If these universes are truly parallel then these timelines cannot come into contact with one another, but if they are not parallel then they might occasionally interact. Evidence for such connections may be found in these common (mis)memories.
In our universe, for example, Nelson Mandela died in 2013, but people who believe he died in prison in the 1980s are not misremembering Mandel’s actual death but instead are accurately reporting what really happened in a universe in which Mandela did die in prison. Likewise, in another universe there was a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstein Bears (although this would mean that the authors—Stan and Jan Berenstain—also had a different last name spelling), the United States consists of 52 states (Puerto Rico and Cuba?), and Star Wars includes the line “Luke, I’m your father.” (I wonder if, in one of these other universes, the prequel films were not as awful as they were in our universe?) Oh, and in some universes imaginary numbers are real. Cool.
None of us likes to believe that a memory we are confident is accurate is, in fact, completely wrong.
Already a good skeptic only three weeks into the semester, my student Taryn Honeysett offered a more rational and reasonable explanation for why people believe in The Mandela Effect: false memories, memory confabulation, social reinforcement of beliefs, the need to effect the world and control our lives, and the desire to believe that we are connected to something greater than ourselves (and what could feel grander than believing you are in contact with an entire parallel universe?!). We know from decades of research by cognitive psychologists that human memory is deeply flawed, constantly edited, and resembles not at all an audio/video recording device that can play back an event on the screen of our minds that is then accurately reported by a homunculus watching the scene replayed. None of us likes to believe that a memory we are confident is accurate is, in fact, completely wrong.
Fiona Broome, for example, says she remembers Nelson Mandela’s 1980s death “clearly, complete with news clips of his funeral, the mourning in South Africa, some rioting in cities, and the heartfelt speech by his widow. Then, I found out he was still alive.” At first she thought “Oh, I must have misunderstood something on the news,” but then at a DragonCon event she heard that others had the same memory as she had about Mandela’s death, and from there she began to construct a parallel universes explanation. (All the more reason why we need Skepticality host Derek Colanduno’s SkepTrack programming at DragonCon!) “These aren’t simple errors in memory,” Broome concluded. “They seem to be full-constructed incidents (or sequential events) from the past. They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness.” Unfortunately Broome does not tell us what she (or cognitive scientists) think is the “normal range” of memory, but from this premise she asserts that the fact that “other people seem to have identical memories” is evidence of “parallel realities, quantum science, real-life ‘Sliders’ experiences, and alternate history.”
The “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics is a legitimate theory, even if it is unproven and probably unprovable. But taking such a theory and grafting it onto something as mundane as memory confabulation and the human desire for transcendence and inter-connectedness becomes a fine example of how science slides into pseudoscience, and why we need skepticism grounded in solid cognitive science of how the mind works.